One of the common statements that is made by people, especially those of an activist persuasion, is that the personal is the political. One of the aspects that makes politics so contentious and so fierce, regardless of one’s worldview, is that the extent to which governments and institutions can intervene in our personal life makes it very important that such institutions reflect our own beliefs and opinions. Where there are massive differences in worldview, what is seen as being obviously appropriate by someone will be seen as being a threat to the well-being and survival by those who disagree. And short of everyone having the same beliefs and opinions, which does not appear to be an available option in the near-term of our existence, we are left with sorting out how to deal with the contentions that are inevitably raised by political matters. The ever-increasing power of institutions and governments to shape the lives of citizens and the ever-increasing scope of what is considered political has made it seemingly inevitable that political problems should proliferate. How to maintain a proper attitude towards others in the midst of this has become an increasingly serious matter.
Why is the personal political and the political personal? On the one hand, the personal becomes political inevitably when we seek to make our own personal lives better by changing the circumstances around us. Let us say that as a left-handed person I believe that there is a structural bias in favor of right-handed people, and in order to counter-act that bias I am able to encourage a large enough group of people to make demands on society to benefit left-handed people when it comes to the design of doors and desks and so on. While being left-handed is not necessarily a political matter, being an activist on behalf of left-handed people and seeking to make the world a less dangerous and awkward place for left-handed people is inevitably political in nature. And so it is with everything else. Our identities are not necessarily political, but the extent to which our identities shape the course of our lives, it is easy for such matters to be politicized, and this has consequences in increasing conflict because what serves our own identity inevitably harms others. To make the world a friendlier place for left-handed people, it must be a less friendly place for right-handed people. For life to be slanted more in favor of women, it must generally be slanted less in favor of men. To the extent that our identities become political, we become the latent if not active enemies of anyone whose identity is different from us. And with so many qualities that can count as identity–anything that we recognize as having a difference in our lives–the possibilities for conflict and division are limitless in such a situation.
The reverse is also true as well. The political becomes the personal whenever it is that institutions and governments seek to make decisions based on matters of personal importance. One of the chief selling points of the libertarian perspective is to lower the power of government so that it has less authority and range to interfere in the lives of others, thus allowing natural talent and ability and good fortune to succeed. Throughout history, though, those who have always feared that their individual talents were not up to snuff has sought to combine themselves better so as to be less vulnerable, and this tendency has continued unabated to the present day with regards to the ferocity of identity blocs. To the extent that it is important for us that government smooth our way, it will make things more difficult for those who do things differently. To the extent that we want government to get out of our way, it can no longer smooth the way for someone else. The vitriol and hostility generated over such matters is entirely predictable since different conceptions of freedom and liberty and justice and equity and legitimacy and morality and a whole host of related concepts are all deeply fraught with controversy and hostility by people with wildly different ideas as to what these all mean and how it is that a government or institution would demonstrate them.
Again, if one wanted to decrease conflict over politics and power, the obvious way of doing so would be to decrease the scope of authority and allow for more freedom on the part of people to defend their own interests in word and deed and less scope to push for coercive government power in the lives of others. Such a decision, though, would increase our own personal responsibility because we would have to rely, to a great extent, on our own resources. For those who are willing and able to do so, this is precisely how things should be, but for those who are insecure about their own abilities to persuade others and to defend their lives and property and sacred honor, it seems intolerable to remove from them the defense of government. Yet that which defends us can inevitably assault others. That which can defend our interets can threaten the interests of those who oppose us. There is no government that can be powerful enough to protect people and interests that is not also powerful enough to threaten and attack the interests of others. The same is true of power of any level. If we personally have enough power to defend and protect ourselves and our interests, we by definition also have enough power to threaten those who lack that same power. Even if that power is only in intelligent and cogent argumentation, it is still a power that threatens the honor of others when it is possessed by people whose intentions and character are not trusted. And who can we afford to trust in times like these?